Bulgaria Tour: Land of History
Travel to Bulgaria: Thracian tombs, gold and silver hoards, medieval cities, rock-hewn churches, the Madara Rider rock relief
with Dr. Vassil Tenekedjiev
October 1 – 18, 2023
Why Take this Tour?
- Led by Dr. Vassil Tenekedjiev, head of the Balkan Heritage Foundation – Varna
- Private presentation and tour of the excavations at Yunatsite
- View a preserved 2,500 year old Thracian chariot with skeletons of two horses still hitched in place
- Examine the astounding Rogozen Treasure made up of gold-plated silver dishes
- Savor the Gold of Varna, 18 pounds of jewelry and weapons made of gold
- See the Valchitran Gold Collection used to worship Dionysus
- Tour Bulgaria’s Seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Maximum 14 participants
(click to enlarge)
Day 1: Depart the USA
Day 2: Arrive Bulgaria. Tour Sofia.
Day 3: Tour Sofia. Valchitran Gold
Day 4: Vratsa. Rogozen Collection. Veliko Tarnovo.
Day 5: Nicopolis ad Istrum. Arbanasi.
Day 6: Tour Veliko Tarnovo. Ivanovo. Tour Ruse.
Day 7: Sveshtari Thracian Tombs. Demir Baba Teke. Veliki Preslav.
Day 8: Pliska. Madara Rider. Devnya Mosaics. Stone Forest.
Day 9: Kaliakra Fortress. Balchik. Tour Varna.
Day 10: Tour Varna. Gold of Varna. Tour Nessebar.
Day 11: Pomorie Tomb. Kazanluk Thracian Tombs. Shipka.
Day 12: Karanovo Mound & Thracian Tomb. Tour Stara Zagora.
Day 13: Hlyabovo Dolmen. Madzharovo. Perperikon.
Day 14: Tatul Thracian Sanctuary. Harmankaya Rock Sanctuary. Tour Plovdiv.
Day 15: Tour Plovdiv. Bachkovo Monastery. Asenova Fortress.
Day 16: Private Tour of Yunatsite. Tour Sofia.
Day 17: Rila Monastery. Free time in Sofia.
Day 18: Depart Sofia.
Bulgaria displays a treasure trove of historic monuments that span thousands of years of history. The Thracians left behind an abundance of artwork in their spectacular tombs. The country contains cities and forts of Roman and Byzantine Empires, lavish medieval architecture and artistry, along with buildings left from the almost 500 years of Ottoman control.
Far Horizons covers the country from the mountains in the southwest, to the Black Sea on the east, and to the Danube River on the north. The enticing itinerary includes all seven UNESCO World Heritage sites: the rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo; the ancient city of Nessebar; Madara Rider where a knight triumphing over a lion is carved high onto a cliff; glorious Rila Monastery; Boyana Church with its striking 12th century murals, and the Thracian tombs in both Kazanlak and Sveshtari.
Won’t you join only 13 others on this 18-day itinerary, which explores this captivating country noted for its imposing mountains, picturesque villages, enchanting cuisine, excellent wine, stunning historic sites, and welcoming people?
Vassil Tenekedjiev received his MA and PhD from Sofia University in Archaeology. He is presently an Assistant Professor at the Varna Regional Museum of History in the Department of Archaeology. He graduated high school with an English language degree, and is fluent in four languages – English, French, Russian and Bulgarian. Since 2008, he has been a featured lecturer to the Union of Bulgarian Tourist Guides on archaeology, history and ancient art. For almost two decades, Dr. Tenekedjiev has excavated at archaeological sites all over eastern Bulgaria, and for the last two years, he has been the co-director of an Early Christian Monastery near Varna. Dr. Tenekedjiev is manager of the Varna branch of the Balkan Heritage Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) created to support the protection, conservation, management and promotion of the cultural and historical heritage of southeastern Europe. He has also been a speaker at conferences in several countries in Europe, a featured lecturer on Bulgarian National Television, and co-author, producer and radio-presenter on archaeology on Radio Varna. Dr. Tenekedjiev’s knowledge of Bulgaria’s past, his teaching skills and his entertaining personality will enlighten and captivate you!
‘Dr. Tenekedjiev was outstanding, personable (approachable) and very knowledgeable. His English was good and easily understood. He was always willing to answer any question’ – Nancy Gregory
‘Excellent! Vassil was very knowledgeable, and well organized. His history outlines and references back to things we had already seen and how they related to the present visit were helpful. Questions were well addressed. His enthusiasm was contagious. And he’s good company, good humored!’ – Roberta McIlhenny
‘Very good trip! Vassil and Gregory were excellent guides. Their expertise was amazing. Kind, courteous, funny, helpful – just great.’ – Letty and Del Newkirk
(B) breakfast, (L) lunch, (D) dinner
Day 1: Depart the USA.
Day 2:Arrive into the capital city of Sofia this morning and transfer to the five-star Grand Hotel Sofia, our home for two nights. Take some time to rest before enjoying an afternoon walking tour. The city of Sofia covers layers of civilization, and its churches and monuments reveal more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet influence. Begin with a stop at Alexander Nevski Cathedral, built as a memorial to honor the Russian Emperor Alexander the 2nd, also known as the Tsar-Liberator, whose army freed Bulgaria from the five-century long Ottoman dominion in 1878. Venture below St. Sofia Basilica to wander among Roman walls. These excavations of the forum include tombs and four churches from the 4th century. Join Dr. Ivan Vasilev of the Balkan Heritage Foundation for a specially arranged cocktail hour. Dinner is on our own tonight. (B/L/ )
Day 3: Our day begins at Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an excellent example of medieval art and architecture. The complex is made up of three buildings with one of them containing marvelous 13th-century wall paintings. Continue to the National Museum of History with rooms displaying objects from prehistory through today, and then the National Archaeology Museum, where the Valchitran Gold is displayed. This astonishing treasure was found by chance while digging up a vineyard in Valchitran village in 1923. Walk into the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque, designed by the great Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, and the only functioning mosque remaining in Sofia. Next to the mosque are the Baths of Sofia, used as the city’s public baths until 1986. The magnificent Sofia Synagogue, the third most important in Europe after Budapest and Amsterdam, is in the same area. It regularly conducts public worship but also contains a museum about Jewish traditions and historical heritage in the country and the rescue of Jews during World War II. Bulgaria was the only nation in Europe to save its entire Jewish population from the Nazi death camps, and King Boris has the wartime distinction of being the only world leader to defy Hitler face-to-face. Gather this evening for our welcome dinner in a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. (B/L/D)
Day 4: Depart Sofia for Vratsa, and the Vratsa History Museum partially located within the Tower of Meshchii, a fortified 16th century residential stronghold. Spread through several halls, the exhibitions include the Rogozen Collection, the richest Thracian treasure yet discovered within Bulgaria. It includes gold-plated silver dinnerware that belonged to a Thracian royal dynasty. Drive on to Veliko Turnovo, the medieval capital of Bulgaria, and enter the 13th century St. Peter and St. Paul Church. This unique structure boasts three layers of exquisite frescos of Christian saints. Overnight for two nights at the 3-star Park Hotel in Arbanassi (B/L/D)
Day 5: The Roman, and later Byzantine, Nicopolis ad Istrum was founded by Emperor Trajan. On the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List, the arresting architecture and Hellenistic sculpture show a similarity with those of similar towns in Asia Minor. After walking through the old city, continue to the charming village of Arbanassi, now an open-air museum. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the village became an affluent crafts and trade hub. During this period, wealthy traders constructed impressive stone houses resembling small fortresses, along with ornately embellished churches and monasteries, many covered in colorful painted frescoes. Konstantsaliev House, a fortress-home surrounded by high stone walls, is an example of this unique style of architecture. Our next destination is Transfiguration, or Preobrazhenski, Monastery with both its exterior and interior painted in vibrant scarlet hues. Dinner is on our own. (B/L/ )
Day 6: Begin the day at Tsarevets Royal Hill, a medieval stronghold that was besieged by the Ottomans for months before finally succumbing in 1393, marking the fall of the Bulgarian Empire. Next, we drive north to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ivanovo, a complex of Christian sanctuaries cut out of the living rock during the 12th century. The cave interiors are decorated with superb medieval wall paintings. Continue to Ruse, located on the right bank of the Danube with the country of Romania on the opposite side of the river. It is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Bulgaria due to its refined Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture. The Ruse Regional Museum contains the 5th-century BC Borovo Treasure, a hoard of gold-plated silver dining items, many displaying images of Greek gods. Spend one night in the Hotel Ana Palace in Ruse. (B/L/D)
Day 7: Today, if reopened after restoration, we head to Sboryanovo Historic and Archaeological Reserve, which encompasses more than 140 sites. The most famous is the Sveshtari Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The interior of this Thracian crypt is filled with wonderful art. Along the wall is a procession of ten caryatids that are half human and half plant, and a mural depicting a ruler on horseback gazing toward a god holding a laurel wreath. Next, it’s on to Demir Baba Teke, thought to be the resting place of Demir Baba, a 16th-century Alevi saint. In the afternoon, a short drive takes us to Veliki Preslav, a fortified town established more than 1,100 years ago and declared the capital of the Bulgarian state in 893. Overnight in the Hotel Villa Bulgara Eco located in the pleasant village of Kyulevtcha. (B/L/D)
Day 8: Pliska was the first capital of the First Bulgarian Kingdom. Here we explore the ruins of palaces, fortifications and The Great Basilica, one of the largest Christian places of worship of its time. Next, we see the Madara Rider, a gigantic early medieval rock relief incised into a 300-foot high cliff face. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the carving represents a knight’s victory over a lion. We continue to Marcianopolis. During excavations in 1976, a large 4th century palace was exposed that covered one quarter of the Roman town. The exceptional Museum of Mosaics was constructed over the splendid mosaic floors of this building. Drive on to Pobiti Kamani, or Stone Forest, a rock marvel where tall hollow cylinders are clustered together in groups, many reaching 15 feet or more in height. These 50-million-year-old columns were formed in the Cenozoic Era and were once beneath the Black Sea. Spend two nights in Varna at the Hotel Golden Tulip. (B/L/D)
Day 9: Travel outside Varna to see the ruins of a medieval fortress on the Kaliakra Cape, strategically positioned on a rocky headland jutting out into the Black Sea. Move on to ancient Dionysopolis, where Dr. Tenekedjiev excavated. It was here that the Decree of Dionysopolis was written by the city’s citizens around 48 BC. Only a fragment of the document remains but may have been sent to Pompey to discuss an alliance against Julius Caesar. Today it is safely located in the National Historical Museum in Sofia. Next, view the artifacts on display at the Balchik History Museum, many found in excavations of the nearby Kibela (Cybele) Temple. Back in Varna, one of the oldest cities in Europe, view the Roman baths complex, the fourth-largest in Europe and the largest in the Balkans. Dinner is on our own. (B/L/ )
Day 10: Our morning will be spent in the notable Archaeological Museum of Varna which displays over 100,000 artifacts from northeast Bulgaria’s past eras. Its most celebrated exhibit is the Gold of Varna. Six thousand years ago, during the Chalcolithic era, a mysterious civilization buried an important ruler draped with 18 pounds of jewelry and weapons made of processed gold. It was accidently uncovered in 1973 by a backhoe operator digging on the Varna necropolis. Move on to the Byzantine Monastery on Djanavara Hill to have a private tour of the excavations, sponsored by the Balkan Heritage Foundation. In the afternoon, drive to the Black Sea coastal town of Nessebar. Dating back over 3,000 years, the attractive old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we stroll through the Byzantine fortification walls and along the cobbled streets, we will see the remains of earlier societies from Hellenistic to the 19th century wooden houses typical of Black Sea architecture. We will enter the Archaeological Museum as well as view the outstanding frescos of the Church of St. Stephen. Overnight tonight in the small, family-run Hotel Stefan in Nessebar. (B/L/D)
Day 11: Near today’s town of Pomorie, a wealthy aristocratic family created a mausoleum in the 3rd century. Designed of brick and stone, the circular interior in this ‘beehive tomb’ is topped by a stately mushroom shaped dome. We’ll drive to Kazanlak Valley with an exceedingly high concentration and variety of Thracian monuments. In the regional museum of Kazanluk gain an introduction to the history of the Valley of the Thracian Rulers. Among the hundreds of burial mounds found here, the most famous is the Tomb of Kazanlak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the large royal necropolis in the valley. Richly decorated with intricate murals depicting the Thracian culture, this is Bulgaria’s best-preserved work of art from the Hellenistic period. The original tomb is closed to the public, but we will enter an exact replica. Then it’s on to other burial chambers in the region. Goliama Kosmatka was the grave of the 3rd-century King Seuthes lll. All the necessities of life after death were found inside: bronze vessels, gilded helmet, swords and spears, and even a ceramic urn filled with wine. The tomb in Shushmanets was built to be a temple in the 4th century BC and then turned into a Thracian burial chamber supported by graceful Doric column with Ionic capital. The roof of Ostrusha Tomb is ornamented with dozens of square and circle shaped niches, many with still visible vivid polychrome paintings. In the town of Shipka, a Russian Church was officially opened in 1902 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Battles of Shipka Pass. The 17 bells, the biggest of which weighs almost 12 tons, were cast from fired cartridges gathered on the former battlefield of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. The architecture mirrors 17th -century Russian church architecture with golden domes, lovely multi-colored wall paintings and an iconostasis lavishly enhanced with gilded woodcarvings. Proceed to Stara Zagora and overnight in the 5-star Park Hotel for two nights. (B/L/D)
Day 12: Start the day at the village of Karanovo. During excavations in 2009, there was an amazing discovery made, now known as The Karanovo Thracian Chariot Tomb. Along with an abundance of gold and silver objects, a preserved 2,500-year-old Thracian chariot with elaborate bronze decorations was found along with the still visible skeletons of two horses that would have pulled it. A dog was chained to the cart, and nearby was the burial of what was most likely the owner along with his armor and swords. The interred individual was obviously affluent – two silver chalices were found, both inscribed with the image of the god Eros, along with unique glass plates, warrior’s trappings, coins, silver anklets, and gold rings. Return to Stara Zagora and visit the Neolithic Dwellings Museum, the local Archaeology Museum, and the remains of the Roman Forum and Thermae as well as some well-preserved mosaics located inside the city’s post office. (B/L/D)
Day 13: We depart for Hlyabovo Thracian Dolmen, a megalithic monument of upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab. Remarkably, human remains were found in one of the chambers. Continue to the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, to Madzharovo to view the imposing rock of Kovankaya, exhibiting hundreds of manmade niches. Next, climb Perperikon, the largest megalithic archeological site in the Balkans. Although excavations show that there was a settlement here in 5000 BC, the 1500 BC level is of great interest as it is the only known city of the Thracians. Buildings, streets, and a water supply system are clearly visible, as is a huge altar cleaved out of the rock where fire rituals would most likely have been performed. Overnight for one night at the 3-star Hotel Kardjali in Kardzhali. (B/L/D)
Day 14: Near Tatul Village is found one of the most imposing megalithic monuments ever discovered in Bulgaria. This 4th century BC Thracian sanctuary contains two sarcophagi, a rectangular bed for the main altar, and a 10-foot-deep well. Move on to the intriguing Harmankaya Rock Sanctuary built around a cave. Two deep basins dominate the site which some researchers believe date to 2000 BC and may have been used for astronomical observations. Whether this is accurate or not, the area was certainly important as we can observe trapezoid niches, altars and structural foundations cut into the rock. Continue to Plovdiv, designated by the European Union (EU) as the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Dinner is on our own. Overnight for two nights at the boutique Hotel Landmark Creek. (B/L/ )
Day 15: Plovdiv is a city with layers of epochs. We will visit the Old Plovdiv architectural reserve, awarded a medal for architecture by UNESCO, with amphitheater, Roman forum and stadium, and St. Constantine and Helena Church. Visit the extensive Ethnographic Museum, housed in the grand 19th-century home of the Ottoman merchant Argir Kuyumdzhioglu. Move on to Bachkovo Monastery, the second largest monastery in Bulgaria. Founded in 1083, the resplendent building is a unusual combination of Byzantine, Georgian, and Bulgarian cultures. Lastly, see Asenova Fortresss, sited high on a rocky ridge overlooking the Asenitsa River. Inside the fortifications lies the Church of the Holy Mother of God. The sanctuary’s interior displays fragments of 14th century superb frescos of saints. Return to Plovdiv with dinner on our own. (B/L/ )
Day 16: Today we head to Yunatsite Tell for a private tour with a local archaeologist working there. Excavations have shown that the mound dates to the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. At the nearby Pazardzhik Museum glimpse artifacts found onsite. After our visit, we return to Sofia. The city covers ancient Serdica, founded 4,000 years ago by the Thracians. Walk through the center of the city to see the Roman remains including the amphitheater, accidentally discovered in 2004 during the early constructions of a hotel and now is incorporated into the building’s ground floor. Visit the early Christian Church of St George, a red brick rotunda originally built in the 4th century as Roman baths. Dinner is on our own. Overnight in the five-star Grand Hotel Sofia for two nights. (B/L/ )
Day 17: Journey outside Sofia to Rila Monastery, the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This architectural jewel was founded in the 10th century by the students of the hermit St. Ivan of Rila, whose name it bears, and there have been many additions and renovations since that time. The interior is adorned with gorgeous medieval paintings and wooden carvings, and a brilliant gold-plated iconostasis dominates the sanctuary. Return to Sofia for some free time in the city before a farewell dinner at an elegant local restaurant. (B/L/D)
Day 18: Return to the USA.
$8,995.00 (per person, double occupancy) includes all hotels; most meals (as noted in the itinerary); ground transportation; services of an English-speaking guide; entry fees; ground transportation; emergency medical evacuation insurance; and gratuities to drivers and guides.
Single Supplement: $695.00. Should a roommate be requested and one not be available, the single supplement will be charged.
Cost Does Not Include: A separate $150.00 (per person) donation check made out to a designated donation project; roundtrip international flights to/from Sofia, Bulgaria; passport or visa fees; airport and taxes; Meals other than those listed in the itinerary; food, alcoholic and other beverages not on set menus; excess baggage charges; personal tips; necessary vaccines and tests; email, telephone and fax charges; laundry or other items of a personal nature.
Donation Checks: As a tour company that benefits from the cultural and natural riches of our destinations, we have a policy of donating to the scientific and cultural projects and museums we visit. This has created a bond between Far Horizons and the academic and local communities that has helped us establish an extensive list of lecturers and contacts in each of our destinations. We ask that each participant write a check to the noteworthy project we designate. The donation amount is $150.00 per person and is made by check directly to the donation project. We will be designating a donation project for this trip shortly. Note that the donation is required as part of your registration for the trip and that it is non-refundable.
Fuel Surcharges: Far Horizons must pass on price increases when additional fuel charges are levied.
A deposit of $750 per person to Far Horizons and a separate check for $150.00 to a donation project is required upon making your reservation along with a completed and signed registration form. Final payment is due 120 days prior to departure. Upon receipt of your deposit and completed registration form, you will be sent a reading list and a tour bulletin containing travel information. Prior to the trip, we will send links to various websites of pertinent interest to the trip. Click here to download our Registration Form.
Cancellations received in writing at least 120 days before departure will receive a refund less a $450 per person administrative fee. Cancellations received less than 120 days before the departure date will not receive a refund. If for any reason you are unable to complete the trip, Far Horizons will not reimburse any fees. Upon registering for the tour, the purchase of travel protection with both trip cancellation and emergency evacuation is strongly advised. Insurance recommended by Far Horizons can be reviewed by clicking HERE.
If you do not fly on the group flight, you are responsible for all flight arrangements and transportation (including airport transfers) to join the group. If Far Horizons must change the trip dates or cancel the trip for any reason, Far Horizons is not responsible for any air ticket you may have purchased.
Travel in Bulgaria
Bulgarian hotels do not always meet western expectations. They will occasionally be simple. Bell staff may not be available, and participants must be prepared to, at times, be responsible for their own luggage. Remember that Bulgaria is a European country, and hotel rooms tend to be smaller than those in the USA.
The group will be walking into and around sites extensively, frequently over uneven paths. All participants must be in good health, physically active, and able to walk independently and unassisted for distances that may exceed a mile or more each day. As a courtesy to your fellow travelers, remember that keeping up with the group is each participant’s responsibility. Many of the sites to be visited are on mountaintops and to reach them means climbing. Be prepared! Carefully choose footwear with strong support for your feet and ankles. If you are not physically strong, are walking with a cane, or have problems with climbing, there will be no one to assist you. Team spirit and a good sense of humor are vital! If you have questions about your ability to handle this sort of challenge, please call us.
Note About Itinerary Changes
Changes in our itinerary, accommodations, and transportation schedules may occur. A good book to read as well as a flexible attitude and a sense of humor are essential.
Private Tours of Archaeological Sites
The private tours of archaeological sites and talks by specialists are scheduled in advance and include a donation to each. Specialists working at these sites are excited about showing their work to interested enthusiasts. However, please be aware that there may be times when the director or a member of the staff may not be onsite when our groups arrive due to other commitments.
THIS ARCHAEOLOGICAL TOUR IS LIMITED TO 14 PARTICIPANTS